Steven Walters
The State of Politics

First State Budget Veto In 90 Years?

Tony Evers threatens to become first governor since 1931 to veto entire budget.

By - Jun 7th, 2021 10:21 am
Gov. Tony Evers. File photo by Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Gov. Tony Evers. File photo by Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

In June 2019, Democrat Tony Evers had been governor for just six months. He still hoped to work with Republicans who control the Legislature, even though they passed “lame duck” bills that curbed the authority of the governor and another incoming Democrat, Atty. Gen. Josh Kaul, before they took office.

But as it became clear how far apart the parties were, Evers threatened to veto the entire Republican-crafted budget. Eventually the former superintendent of public instruction ended up signing it because it boosted spending for for K-12 schools by more than $500 million.

Since then, Evers has been sued, criticized and scorned by Republican legislators. His cabinet secretaries who have run key state agencies for 30 months have not been confirmed, for example.

Evers is also about to announce how he’ll spend $2.5 billion in federal pandemic relief money. He vetoed bills passed by Republicans that would have allowed them to approve or deny his plans for that cash. He’s also laying the groundwork to seek a second term next year. He just announced the team of veteran partisan operatives who will run his reelection campaign.

All this helps explains why Evers last week threatened to veto the entire 2021-23 budget Republican legislators will put on his desk in a few weeks. No governor has done that since 1931.

“That’s too early to tell, but that is always an option,” Evers told reporters. “That is on the table.”

It is early in the fiscal sausage-stuffing process, although state government’s next budget cycle begins July 1. The Republicans’ budget must still be approved by the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) and then by the Assembly and Senate. Any spending disagreements between the two houses would then have to be resolved.

In a statement, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said federal pandemic aid for K-12 schools, and new state aid tentatively approved by JFC, would quadruple the increase in education spending in the budget Evers signed two years ago.

“Given this massive amount of money, issuing veto threats before even sitting down to negotiate with the Legislature shows his inability to lead and his willingness to score political points using our kids and tax dollars as pawns,” Vos said.

There are several reasons why the governor’s threat to veto the entire budget is more real this year.

-K-12 spending: JFC Republicans tentatively approved $128 million more by mid-2023 for schools – less than one-tenth of the increase Evers asked for in February. JFC also set aside an additional $350 million which could go to schools. But a U.S. Department of Education official warned that the Finance Committee decisions on new aid for K-12 schools could jeopardize $1.5 billion in federal pandemic relief.

-Medicaid spending: Republican legislators continue to reject another Evers priority to make more middle-income residents eligible for Medicaid, which provides health care for the elderly, poor and disbled. About one in five Wisconsin residents now get help from Medicaid. Republicans say there is no health-care coverage gap in Wisconsin, and $1 billion more in short-term additional federal aid to expand Medicaid could become a long-term spending commitment that state taxpayers would face.

-Legalizing marijuana: Evers wants to legalize medical marijuana and legalize and tax its recreational use. Although there is more support in the Legislature for medical marijuana than legalizing its recreational use, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu has said Senate Republicans won’t consider either change until the federal government changes its policies.

-Criminal justice/prison reforms: Evers proposed criminal justice reforms that he says would ease prison overcrowding and give more individuals with criminal records for non-violent crimes new chances at rehabilitation. Symbolic of that impasse is the stalemate over whether to build a new Brown County prison that would replace the Green Bay penitentiary built in the 19th Century. Republicans legislators want the new prison, but Evers won’t approve it until legislators consider his criminal justice reforms.

Evers and Republicans also disagree on how to upgrade 1970s technology at the state Department of Workforce Development, which new state buildings to replace or maintain and dozens of other programs.

What happens if Evers vetoes the Legislature’s budget? State government keeps spending at pre-July 1 levels and Republicans craft a new budget.

Remember what Vos said, when Evers floated the idea of vetoing the entire budget two years ago: The governor will have even bigger problems with any second budget we send him.

Steven Walters has covered the Capitol since 1988. Contact him at stevenscotwalters@gmail.com

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